Ever notice how you can go on being an automaton, robotically engaging in work stuff, moving from one patient to the other, each one a statistic on your ever growing list of patients to see or having had seen – no interaction long enough to actually create a connection other than that of patient/doctor and you professionally enter and exit the cubicle and move on to the next job, next patient, or indeed next shift. And yet sometimes it does happen that something hits the mark, and there is a chink in the armour, the professionalism slips (not outwardly, but it surprises you that you feel something other than empathy towards the patient in front of you – you really look at the patient, not as just a patient but an actual human being with feelings, and thoughts start milling around your head – or your heart? – and you think of the patient’s feelings, their desires and weaknesses, the consequences of their actions – and you realise with a jolt that you are not an automaton, that you are, indeed, human.
I am usually a happy presence at work (if I may say so myself) but I was having a particularly ‘smiling-from-ear-to-ear’ day a few days back. A recent couple of professional achievements, along with being well rested from a full night’s sleep meant I was walking around with a bit more bounce in my step. I was working a late shift, but from the broad smile on my face you would have thought I was about to go home on a 2 week holiday! (I was not, but yes, I am a bit weird – I actually have fun at work!) – I was assigned to see paeds patients in ED, all the minors, majors, ENP ones etc – and I was going about my day when the consultant asked me to come out of Paeds for a bit and see the next adult patient, who was already at 3 hours (that much time had elapsed since she had come in to the hospital) – the brief note from triage nurse said that this was a young female between 25-35 years of age, who had come in with a self harm injury or injuries – she was categorised as a ‘yellow’ which meant there was no imminent threat to her life but she did warrant a thorough assessment.
Treatment/management of such cases is usually 2-pronged: one, manage the obvious injury or insult and treat the current presentation, and two (and more importantly) try to deal with and manage the longterm/shortterm psychological aspects of the presentation (not an ED thing but there are certainly specialist who are better equipped to deal with this and who very kindly assess and evaluate patients from that perspective after they have been treated from a physical ailment point of view. So anyway – I went in to see the patient – it had been mentioned in the notes that she was accompanied by her support worker – but the woman who stood up when I announced the name in the waiting area was alone. And she stood up at once and followed me into the cubicle to be assessed, along the way I introduced myself, and thanked her for her patience in waiting. She was extremely polite, and even offered me a smile, but she kept looking anywhere but at me directly. I asked her what had brought her to the ED that evening and she matter of factly stated that she was here because she had self-harmed. Again. She did not seem to be in any sort of pain, so I assumed (wrongly) that she had a superficial sort of wound that wouldn’t really require too much medical attention. I smiled at her and said something along the lines of ‘well, let’s see what we are dealing with here, and I will try to help you any way I can.” She exposed her left arm unto her shoulder, and I took off her temporary dressings from her upper arm (above her elbow) – while I was doing so, I kept making small talk, and registered the many, many scars from previous self harm attempts there before me were 4 very large, very long, and VERY gaping full thickness lacerations to her upper arm. In places where normally the skin/muscle sags a bit, it was really using the lacerated margins to gape quite widely. The patient had something like an hour left before they breached? NO WAY was I going to be able to administer local anaesthetic AND suture all 4 of these wounds in under an hour. Alone.
This patient completely threw me off my game. I have closed wounds in numerous ways, and in all sorts of weird and wonderful places – I have once years ago even raced my mentor consultant orthopaedic surgeon in bilateral knee replacements to see who closed up their respective knee first! – But this time was different. This patient was different. And the reason will become apparent up ahead.
I called my consultant because he may have been under the impression this was a quick ‘tape-wound-shut-refer-to-psych-move-on’ kind of situation – he stepped into the cubicle and hemmed and hawwed. I was silent throughout. This felt like an operating table scenario with a patient’s body cavity open up in front of me – The smell was exactly the same. Flesh. Blood. Sadness.
Right then, the consultant asked me to stitch the wounds up – I gave the wounds a good thorough clean with some saline and the patient did not flinch. She did however, apologise quite sincerely for wasting my time. I will not go into the details of why she thought she needed to do this today – absolutely no judgements to be passed here on that account. But I did assure her she was well within her rights to be there. I said I would go calculate the amount of local anaesthetic require and get it and get it all ready – and her polite demeanor stiffened up. She absolutely refused any local anesthetic. She said, and I quote: ‘ I am not here to waste any of your valuable resources. Please use them for someone who really deserves it – and anyway, I am not in pain and the stitching can’t hurt me more than I have done myself – also (and I was surprised that she knew this) the amount of local anaesthetic required would be a bit too much and wouldn’t be safe for me – and it would wear off by the time it was done being administered!” She was right on all counts – but I requested my consultant to give me an opinion, since she had me absolutely flummoxed. He agreed, no need for the anaesthesia – and that I would achieve better results with a skin stapler rather than suturing the wounds. I had never used skin staplers outside of an OR before, and never on a patient who was conscious and sitting up and talking to me and FEELING THE STAPLES GOING IN! I took a few deep breaths. Got the stuff ready. Took a few more deep breaths. And a few more. And dove in. I put in upwards of 45 or so staples (yes metallic pins sharp enough to stab through the superficial tissues of skin etc and pull them close to optimise wound healing) – did I mention the wounds were exceptionally gaping? Each staple gun comes with 30 or so staples – and I had to use a second one about halfway as well. Wow. My mind was already blown after the first 2-3 staples. But I went on putting more in. I did my best – and to her credit she did not flinch. There was silence. And that smell. And sometimes she would talk to me.
She kept thanking me, and apologising to me, and kept pushing her other hand through her hair as if berating herself mentally. She told me she had a masters degree in something (I forget what – my ears still start ringing everytime I think back to that cubicle) and we chatted about how I wanted to pursue another degree, maybe a masters of some sort and hadn’t quite decided what. She guided me about which staple to remove because it had been bent at an awkward angle due to how gaping the wound was initially, and so when I had ‘scaffolded’ it with staples next to it either side, I removed the offending staple and put another one in. Like I said, she didn’t flinch. At all. She kept that small polite smile in place, was very respectful and I learnt something new about myself that day. That this had gotten to me beyond what I can express here or anywhere. I had seen dead and dying people almost on a daily basis. People in pain, people vomiting with pain, people trying to process bad news or loss or a shock. I have been the villain in so many stories in peoples lives – the bringer or the news that someone they loved had passed away, or what the reports had shown or why we feel that further aggressive measures would be futile – But I had not been affected by those things as much as this calm young woman had affected me. What about her affected me? Nothing about her situation. It was sad, no doubt. But what really affected me was what I realised about myself: I judge people, I am cynical about them, about their diagnoses, about their mental health problems – I never fully appreciated that when someone comes in to hospital following an overdose or some deliberate attempt at self harm, I focus solely on the physical aspect of the case, and let someone else deal with the mental/psychological/psychiatric aspect of it. But this time, I was metaphorically chained to the situation I usually avoid and judge as a spectator – and I could not escape how normal this young woman appeared. She was well read, had a grace and calm in her manner that belied a good upbringing – yet she was obviously in this mental pain and it got so severe sometimes that like this day, the thought of cutting herself and so brutally was her only way to cope with it, and possibly caused her less pain that she was already in. And to be able to get sutures or staples without any anaesthesia on board – how remarkably strong a pain threshold would you have to bear that? Or that you were so used to it that this was all just commonplace occurrence to her. And this wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was that this was neither the first time, nor (we both knew) the last time that she went down this route. I could help her physically, suture/staple everything – but did I actually do anything at all to really, truly help her?
So like I said – we are usually automatons, going about our daily drudgery – and then one day a patient really opens our eyes and makes us sit back – and question …absolutely everything we know and believe in and understand. Or don’t understand.
(Edit: The rest of the shift went by in a blur or a haze, I don’t know if it was all too fast or all too slow for me. I am I think back to my usual self now – albeit with one difference. I am maybe not so quick to judge – and maybe not so quick to dismiss mental anguish based upon my perception of the physical consequences of that mental anguish. I admit to not knowing enough – and hope I can change my practise in a way makes all of this worthwhile.)